Open main menu

JEFFERY, DOROTHY (1685–1777), known as Dolly Pentreath, Pentreath being her maiden name, was born at Mousehole in Mount's Bay, Cornwall, in 1685, but no entry of her baptism can be found in the parish register. It is said that until the age of twenty she could speak no English. From an early age she was a fish-seller or back jowster, i.e. an itinerant fish-dealer, who carried the fish in a cowall, or basket, on her back. She married a man called Jeffery. When, in 1768, Daines Barrington went to Cornwall to make inquiries concerning the Cornish language, which had almost died out, he was ultimately taken to Mousehole and introduced to Dolly Pentreath, who addressed him in the Cornish language. Some other women told him that they understood it, although they spoke it indifferently. Barrington made no public statement about this fact until 1772, when he wrote into Cornwall, inquiring if Dolly Pentreath were still living, and Dr. Walter Borlase sent for her to come to Castle Horneck. She there reported herself to be eighty-seven, talked Cornish readily, was very poor, and was maintained partly by her parish and partly by fortune-telling and gabbling Cornish. In 1776, and again in 1779, Barrington sent papers ‘On the Expiration of the Cornish Language’ to the Society of Antiquaries, and in them gave an account of Dolly Pentreath. She died at Mousehole, and was buried at Paul on 27 Dec. 1777, but the church register does not give her age. In 1860 Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte erected a monument to her memory on the wall of Paul churchyard. This monument was removed in 1882 and placed over her grave. Some time after her death a report was circulated that she had been a centenarian, and Mr. Thomson, an engineer at Truro, to encourage this belief, wrote the following epitaph in the Cornish tongue:—

Coth Doll Pentreath cans ha deau
Marow ha kledyz ed Paul pleu
Na ed an Eglos gan pobel brás
Bes ed Eglos-hay, coth Dolly es,

which has thus been translated:—

Old Doll Pentreath, one hundred aged and two,
Deceased and buried in Paul parish too:—
Not in the church, with people great and high,
But in the churchyard doth old Dolly lie.

The statement that Dolly Pentreath was the last person who could speak Cornish is an error.

[Archæologia, iii. 278–84, v. 81–6; Peter Pindar's Lyric Odes to the Academicians, 1785, Ode xxi.; Polwhele's Cornwall, 1806, v. 16–20; Universal Mag. January 1781, pp. 21–4, with portrait; [Cyrus Redding's] Illustrated Itinerary of Cornwall, 1842, pp. 125–7, with portrait; Boase and Courtney's Bibliotheca Cornubiensis, i. 271; Jago's Ancient Language and Dialect of Cornwall, 1882, pp. 8–12, with portrait.]

G. C. B.